Cannabis has been with us since before the start of recorded history. It is a plant that is fairly simple to cultivate and has an incredibly wide range of applications, including medical, spiritual, and industrial uses. Its use is evident in remnants of a number of ancient cultures, where it often played critical roles in the development of societies and the human race as a whole. Indeed, it might be argued that the evolution of mankind cannot be separated from the evolution of this incredible plant. In this article, we’ll explore cannabis in the ancient world, focusing on where and how it was used.
According to bio-geographers, cannabis is indigenous to Central Asia and modern day India—meaning that its existence there was the result of natural factors, without any human intervention. Cannabis quickly spread throughout Asia, but this specific region is the plant’s evolutionary birthplace. This point is interesting, as the first evidence of humans using cannabis appears further east, in modern day China and Japan. Clearly, cannabis had gotten around very early in human civilization.
These first appearances date back to the Neolithic period, also known as the Late Stone Age. It seems that both of these cultures had been using hemp to fashion rope and sails. This evidence has been used to argue that cannabis may indeed be one of the earliest cultivated plants. The presence of one of these archeological sites, on the Oki islands of Japan, suggest that hemp fibre may very well be responsible for the existence of civilization in that location, as its products enabled efficient marine travel. These sites and the apparent uses of cannabis therein point to the interest that propelled cannabis across the world: the industrial applications of hemp.
Hemp is genetically very similar to the cannabis we grow for the cannabinoid-producing flower, though with several differences which distinguish them. Namely, hemp has more robust stems, and produces much less THC (0.3% compared to the 20+% produced by modern cannabis plants)—for a more thorough discussion of the differences between hemp and cannabis, see our blog post on the subject. Early humans discovered that hemp was easy to grow, relatively simple to process, and produced fibre suitable for, well, a lot of things.
Aside from rope and sails, ancient peoples (in particular the ancient Chinese) as far back as 5000 BCE were using hemp to make clothing items such as shoes, canvas shirts and pants, and also an early form of paper. The archeological record shows that hemp was also an important crop in Korea, with bits of hempen fabric having been found dating as far back as 3000 BCE. The first mention of cannabis in the written record is in 2727 BCE, in a text from China.
While there is evidence that stone-age humans as far west as modern day Germany were aware of and perhaps even cultivating cannabis, there is no hard evidence that these cultures used it for producing textiles until at least 1100 BCE, at which point it rapidly became popular.
Virtually everywhere cannabis grew, people used the seeds as food. It is therefore not too surprising that numerous cultures independently discovered the plant’s medicinal effects very early on. The earliest evidence of the medical application of cannabis comes from a grave in modern day Netherlands. The grave belonged to a member of the Beaker culture (2800-2300 BCE). Archeologists discovered large concentrations of cannabis pollen, as well as pollen of meadowsweet—a medicinal plant known for its fever-reducing properties. Archeologists and historians have theorized that the individual buried there had been ill, and the two plants were used to treat their symptoms.
Ancient Egyptians used cannabis for a number of applications, with ancient papyri describing the use of the plant to treat sore eyes and the pain of hemorrhoids (in the latter application the plant with consumed as a suppository). Ancient Greeks used cannabis to dress wounds on their horses. They also steeped cannabis seeds and used the water to treat ear infections, used seeds to remove tapeworms, and used cannabis leaves to relieve nose bleeds.
Cannabis was also used extensively as medicine in its home continent of Asia. Its uses in Ancient India were widespread and probably most closely mirrored our uses today: pain, insomnia, and gastrointestinal disorders. Ancient Indians also employed the psychoactive properties of the plant to relieve the pain of childbirth. The Shennong Bencaojing, a Chinese text on the subjects of agriculture and medicine, discusses cannabis (referred to as “dama”). It was a Chinese physician that first used cannabis as an anesthetic in the second century of the current era.
This interest in cannabis’ psychoactive properties is obviously quite significant, as it likely began the quest to selectively breed cannabis plants to maximize the production of THC and other medicinal properties. These psychoactive properties were also of interest in another way . . .
Ancient Indian texts, the Vedas, describe cannabis as one of the five sacred plants, one that delivers us from anxiety and brings joy. They also note that a guardian angel dwells in the leaves of the plant, and that hemp was sent to the human race by the gods. The practice of smoking cannabis at wedding celebrations or devotional meetings which persists to this day have its roots in ancient times, when the plant was seen as a spiritual liberator and enhancer of meditation.
Chinese Taoists of the 5th century BCE used cannabis to reveal future events and alter time. A Chinese pharmacopeia from the turn of the millennia claims that if cannabis were consumed over a long period, it would lighten one’s body and enable communication with spirits.
Herodotus, the classical Greek historian, active in the fifth century BCE, wrote of the use of cannabis by inhabitants of Sythia. He describes steam baths where cannabis seeds or flower would be thrown upon the coals and the resulting vapour would make the bathers “shout for joy.” He also describes ritualistic uses which complemented the people’s recreational enjoyment.
STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS
From sails to ceremonies, cannabis seems to have been present throughout human history. From its home in Central Asia, humans carried the plant wherever they went in order to reap its myriad benefits. It allowed great leaps forward in transportation and other industry; it provided relief from a host of medical ailments (some with more effectiveness than others), and it was used to enhance and improve the spiritual aspect of human experience.
These early explorations with cannabis helped humans to discover the various uses of the plant, and to therefore genetically engineer plants that better fit their needs. We can thank these cannabis pioneers for, among other things, the potent strains that we enjoy today.
Now light one up, and reflect on what a long strange trip it’s been.